The Torture Question
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tony lagouranis


Spc. Tony Lagouranis (Ret.) was a U.S. Army interrogator from 2001 to 2005, and served a tour of duty in Iraq from January 2004 to January 2005. He was first stationed at Abu Ghraib; in the spring he joined a special intelligence gathering task force that moved among detention facilities around the country. Here, he talks about how he found a "culture of abuse" permeating interrogations throughout Iraq. "The worst stuff I saw was from the detaining units who would torture people in their homes," he tells FRONTLINE. "… They would smash people's feet with the back of an axe-head. They would break bones, ribs, you know. That was serious stuff." He says he sent reports of the abuse he saw up the chain of command, but he does not believe his claims were followed up on. Lagouranis also talks about the confusion on the ground over whether Iraqi prisoners were subject to the Geneva Conventions. "I mean, there's just no way that what we were doing and what was sanctioned by the Pentagon through the IRE, the interrogation rules of engagement -- there's no way that fit in within the Geneva Conventions," he says. And he describes his own use of military working dogs to intimidate prisoners. This is the edited transcript of an interview conducted on Sept. 25, 2005.

What had you heard about Abu Ghraib before you first went there?

I talked to some of the Arabic people who were in my company and also some of the translators. And they told me a little bit of the history of the prison, that it's notorious in the Arab world. And so they said every Arab will know what this place is, but Americans don't know.

And what did they mean by that?

You know, it was Saddam's torture chamber and execution chamber. And it's where thousands of Shi'a died after the uprising. So you know, it's sort of equivalent of Auschwitz for the Arab people. …

And the physical surroundings?

Well, one thing that was troubling was that it's a big compound surrounded by a tall wall. And we knew that the town was out there, and it was very hard for us to defend against the town. So we were getting mortared all the time. It was pretty, pretty dangerous.

What's that like? Can you hear it coming?

You can't hear it coming; you just hear it exploding. And there's often like a period of confusion. You don't know if it's outgoing or incoming. And so you don't want to hit the deck and look like a fool if it's outgoing, you know what I mean? But it's pretty terrifying, sure. You know, an attack starts and you hit the ground, and you expect "the next one's going to get me." You can't help that. And it didn't matter how long I was there.

Really, it never gets better?

No, not really.

How did the guys around you react? …

You just feel so isolated, and morally isolated, that you felt like you could do whatever you want to this guy, and maybe you even want to.

I remember doing interrogations while mortars were coming down and that tends to rev up the interrogation pretty much. You know, people are getting pissed … because they had the sense -- especially at that time, and I'm sure a lot of GIs still do -- that "We're sacrificing to help these people," and they don't understand why they might be attacked themselves. …

And the vibe in the camp from the other [Military Intelligence (MI)] people and the MPs, [Military Police] what did it feel like?

The other interrogators and the analysts, they tended to be pretty disillusioned and bored. Like they'd been there a whole year and had gone in, you know, experienced the frustration of not being able to get any intel, and having the wrong guys there and having that information to go on. So they tended to be pretty disillusioned with the whole process and just wanted to go home. …

So give me a sense, if you can, of your own preparation. … How did you become an interrogator?

Well I joined because I wanted to learn Arabic. I had no interest in interrogation. And this was before 9/11, so I didn't even expect we would go to war. So yeah, after basic training they sent me to Ft. Huachuca, Ariz., where they do MI training. And I went through the interrogation classes and after that I went to Monterey to learn Arabic. …

So they make you an interrogator. What do they teach you about the techniques and methods?

… 9/11 happened while I was in interrogation classes, and nothing changed. We hadn't invaded Afghanistan yet; the doctrine stayed the same. But mainly what they were teaching us was Cold War-style interrogation where we would be dealing with a soldier that came off the battlefield, as in the first Gulf war, for instance.

And they had so many willing detainees in the first Gulf war that they didn't really have to work on breaking people down. If the person didn't want to cooperate, they just didn't talk to them. And they were trying to find out things like how much gasoline does this unit have, what are there movements, how many working tanks did they have. Really benign stuff.

And so the process you use to break down a prisoner is called an "approach." We only spent two days on approaches, and they were pretty much by the book and nothing like we did in Iraq. And when you got to Iraq, everything was approaches. And what they taught us about, like, questioning methods and stuff like that, we rarely even got that far because we had prisoners who weren't talking to us. …

… We've talked to people who say [there was] incredible variance in terms of what are the rules? What can we do? What can't we do?

When we were trained in the schoolhouse about what we could and couldn't do, it was very strict and it came from the Geneva Conventions, the law of land warfare based on enemy prisoners of war. And we never expected that we would interrogate anybody who wasn't an enemy prisoner of war.

And it's still unclear to me what the status of the Iraqis that we had were. Well, I know that they weren't being afforded the legal status of enemy prisoners of war. But supposedly, we were treating them as though they were, but we weren't. I mean, there's just no way that what we were doing and what was sanctioned by the Pentagon through the IRE, the interrogation rules of engagement -- there's no way that fit in within the Geneva Conventions. …

What was happening, for example?

Well hypothermia was a widespread technique. I haven't heard a lot of people talking about that, and I never saw anything in writing prohibiting it or making it illegal. But almost everyone was using it when they had a chance, when the weather permitted. Or some people, the Navy SEALs, for instance, were using just ice water to lower the body temperature of the prisoner. They would take his rectal temperature to make sure he didn't die; they would keep him hovering on hypothermia. That was a pretty common technique.

A lot of other, you know, not as common techniques, and certainly not sanctioned, was just beating people or burning them. Not within the prisons, usually. But when the units would go out into people's homes and do these raids, they would just stay in the house and torture them. Because after the scandal, they couldn't trust that, you know, the interrogators were going to do "as good a job," in their words, as they wanted to.

"Torture" -- what do you mean?

Well, that's a good question. I mean, according to the Geneva Conventions, you're not really supposed to use coercive techniques. I'm not getting the technical language right, but if somebody's not cooperating with you, you can't even threaten to cause them any physical harm or coerce them in any way. It all has to be just verbal, psychological; you shouldn't be causing them any physical discomfort.

But people were using, you know, harsh, stressed positions for long periods of time, isolation, taking people's clothes and mattresses. And so you saw that ran into problems at Abu Ghraib. I think the MPs there who committed these crimes were taking cues from the interrogators and the CIA who were coming in there and stripping the prisoners down, and leaving them naked in their cells.

So I would consider that torture, especially in an interrogation environment where you're supposed to be a professional, and the safety and well being of the prisoner falls on you. They told us that in training, but that didn't translate in the field.

How soon after you got into the business of interrogating at Abu Ghraib did it become obvious to you that rapport-building was not the norm around interrogation cells?

Rapport-building was being used among the smarter interrogators; among the more experienced interrogators. And I think that's the only thing I ever saw work, was rapport-building. So it was sort of 50-50, at that point.

But then I got out and worked with other units … and they weren't as interested in rapport-building. That took too much time, they felt, and it wasn't how they wanted to see themselves as interrogators. They wanted to be like Hollywood interrogators, you know.

What does that mean?

Well, it's funny. I noticed in Mosul, for instance, they were playing movies all the time, DVDs were pretty available over there. And just how many movies and TV shows have interrogation scenes in them? These interrogation scenes usually involve a hard-hitting interrogator running psychological circles and intimidating the prisoner at appropriate times, and maybe even sometimes physical torture. So that's how they wanted to see themselves. But that's not how an interrogation plays out in reality, you know? It's this long process of back and forth, and it's a lot more complicated than that.

[When and why] would somebody resort to something more than even "psychological games," as you say?

That's a good question. I think a lot of it was frustration that we weren't getting good intel. You know, we rarely got good intel from the prisoners, and I blame that on that we were getting bad prisoners. Or "good" prisoners, prisoners who were innocent and didn't have intel to give us. And also that when they were arrested, we didn't get all the information that the unit should have given us in order to interrogate this guy.

And so you can't just go in and talk to somebody -- I mean, he's going to figure out pretty fast that you're pretty ignorant, and that he doesn't have to tell you anything. So you're not going to get intel that way. So people were getting frustrated, and they wanted to step it up. …


In Mosul, again, I remember the chief warrant officer in charge of the interrogation facility. He'd heard about how the SEALs had set up a "discotheque" with loud music and strobe lights in order to disorient the prisoner, and he heard about the ice water. We didn't use the ice water; he felt that was too dangerous, somebody might die.

But it was cold, so we were keeping them hovering around hypothermia in this environment of what they call "environmental manipulation" with the music and strobe lights. And then we would bring in military working dogs and use those on the prisoners. Even though it was controlled; like the dogs were muzzled, they were being held by a handler. But the prisoner didn't know that because he was blindfolded.

So he'd hear growling, or what?

Right. I mean, you know, these are big German Shepherds. So when I would ask the prisoner a question and I didn't like the answer, I would cue the handler so the dog would bark and jump on the prisoner, but he wasn't able to bite him.

Now how would the prisoner react?

Fear. I mean, sometimes they wet their jumpsuits because they were so scared, you know? Especially because they'd have a blindfold and they can't figure out -- you know, that's a pretty terrifying position to be in.

I know that at Guantanamo, at the earliest stages there was this kind of urban myth -- maybe, maybe not -- that Arab men had an inordinate fear of dogs. Did you hear that?

I heard that all the time, but not from Arabs. I mean, that just seems silly. It's like everyone has a fear of a growling German Shepherd when you're tied up and helpless. And it's like when people were saying, "Arabs, they really hate being sexually humiliated." But who doesn't? I mean, who wants to be sexually humiliated? That's not a cultural thing, that's a human thing. So I attribute a lot of those comments to just pure racism. You hear a lot of comments like that, that really don't make sense.

Like what?

Soon as I got to Abu Ghraib, we were given a brief by a psychiatrist, an Army psychiatrist. He didn't know anything about Arabs or Arabic or Islam, but he'd read a few books and told us things like, "Don't expect to ever get a timeline out of an Arab. They can't think like that, they can't think linearly; they have to think associatively." You know, things like that. Or that "Arabs, it's part of their culture to lie," you know. "They just lie all the time and don't even know that they're doing it." It's like ridiculous, you know?

… What was the effect of that kind of information on [people]?

They believed it, and they continued throughout the whole year that we were there with that idea about Arabs, that they're liars and they don't make sense; they're not rational.

And so what happens in an environment … where that becomes the way you feel about the people in your control?

Well, partly that lends to the frustration. Because they're blaming their lack of ability to get intelligence on the fact that a logical argument presented to somebody, or whatever psychological way that you're going to back them into a corner isn't going to work on an Arab. You point out a contradiction to them and they don't care, then they just have a new story and that's it. But I think that's true for anybody who's a prisoner being interrogated. You know, they feel helpless, so their story's going to change. It's going to be very hard to back them into a corner. So yeah, I think it added to the frustration and probably contributed to this culture of abuse.

Talk to me about the "culture of abuse." How quickly would it ramp up? How bad would it get?

Well, I never saw too much with the interrogators who were actually professional interrogators that they were doing much more than what I described to you: the dogs, the stress positions, the hypothermia. Which ended up not really causing severe bodily harm, anyway, to the prisoner. The worst stuff I saw was from the detaining units who would torture people in their homes. They were using things like … burns. They would smash people's feet with the back of an axe-head. They would break bones, ribs, you know. That was serious stuff.

When you say "burns," what do you mean?

I remember one guy who was forced to sit on an exhaust pipe on a humvee, and he had a pretty huge blister on his leg. Another guy, I don't know what they used to burn him, his legs. He was blindfolded so he didn't know either, but it looked like it might have been a lighter. He had some pretty big, [some] smaller blisters, but a lot of them.

Why would they do that?

Part of it is, they were trying to get information, but part of it is also just pure sadism. You just kept wanting to push and push and push, and see how far you could go. And it seems like that's just part of human nature. I mean, I'm sure you've read studies conducted in American prisons where you put a group of people in charge of another group of people, and give them control over them, and pretty soon it turns into cruelty and torture, you know? So it's pretty common.

And I saw it, every detention facility I went to. If there wasn't really strong, strong leadership that said, "We're not going to tolerate abuse," … in every facility there would have been abuse. And even among people like the MPs who aren't trying to get intel -- they just do it because it's something people do there, if they're not controlled either inwardly or from above. …

When you take an environment like Abu Ghraib -- regular mortar attacks, lot of emotionality about that, … you've got a massive population and very few people to guard them or debrief them. It's like the recipe for bad stuff.

It is, because you really do feel like you're outside of normal society, you know? Your family, your friends, they're not there to see what's going on. And everybody is sort of participating in this I don't know what -- psychosis, or for want of a better word, this delusion about what you're doing there. And what becomes OK as you look around gets broken down, you know?

And I mean, I felt it myself. I remember being in that shipping container in Mosul. You know, I'd been with a guy all night long. And you just feel so isolated, and morally isolated, that you felt like you could do whatever you want to this guy, and maybe you even want to. But then in the daylight when I would talk to the other soldiers or see other prisoners, that was unacceptable to me. …

We weren't concerned with intel anymore; we just wanted confessions from people. So some of these people that we had in there, they weren't even being accused of anything that we could have gotten intel out of. They had been accused of petty criminal acts or something like that, so why are we even doing that? It's not our jobs. …

And I saw that over and over again. And some of the worst cases that I saw of abuse coming out of the Force Recon Marines in North Babel -- I was writing reports about this, abuse reports and sending it up through the Marine chain of command. And I know that nobody ever investigated these things because I had taken pictures of the wounds. I had organized the medical reports that the Corpsmen had put down, and taken sworn statements from the prisoners.

Nobody ever came to look at that stuff; no one ever came to talk to me about it. I just felt like I was sending these abuse reports to nowhere. And no one was investigating them, or they had no way to investigate them, or maybe no desire. …

[Did] Abu Ghraib [get] better [after the scandal broke]?

Yeah, it got better almost immediately, and progressed also, you know? Like they keep making it more and more sterile, which is good, you know? I mean, I'm glad they're doing that, but that also frustrated the interrogators… You get more and more oversight and more and more focus on Abu Ghraib or anything in the Army, and it turns into a lot of bureaucracy. So they were slowed down in their ability to do their jobs. But at least it did prevent abuse at Abu Ghraib.

But basically, they weren't getting anything then, at all?

Yeah, and I don't think they ever really did, honestly. … You know what they were getting? I can't tell you exactly what the HCRs are -- they're human collection requirements, and you have to be answering one of these in order to write an intelligence report. And there was just pressure from higher so that they could look better and show that we're doing something, to just generate more and more of these reports.

And a lot of them have -- I mean, they have no intelligence value, you know? Like a lot of it's just sort of PR stuff or psych ops stuff -- you know, how do Iraqis feel about this and this, or this and this? -- which you can go in and get that in an interrogation, no problem. And so people were writing tons of these things, and that would go into the PowerPoint slide and they'd brief the general on this, and everybody'd get patted on the back. But they weren't getting intel that people could use. …

They were telling us all the time, "We need timely, actionable intelligence." And that psych ops stuff isn't that; that's not our job to get that stuff.

"Timely, actionable intelligence" means what to you? …

It means that we could give this information to a unit, an infantry unit, and they could act on it, and they could shut down an insurgency cell or they could find the weapons, or whatever. …

The low-hanging fruit that people were getting. … In interrogation, you ask them "How do Iraqis feel about this or that, [Prime Minister Ayad] Allawi or whatever?" They're going to say, "Oh, I love him, I love Americans!" Who isn't going to say that, you know? But once they tell you that lie, then you can just write your report and you're done, and you know, you're done for the day. …

You know, people just wanted numbers. North Babel was one of the worst places I saw for this. Like they would stop a guy at a checkpoint, and he had in his car a shovel and a cell phone. And they'd say, "Well, you can use a shovel to dig an IED [improvised explosive device], to bury an IED, and you can use a cell phone to detonate it. But they didn't find anything else, and there was no reason for them to believe that this guy was setting IEDs. But I have to talk to him. I have to interrogate him three times. If I say he's innocent, they won't believe me. I'd use his cell phone to call his boss and check out his entire story, what he was doing that day, why he might have his cell phone and a shovel. It all checked out, but still he gets sent up. And somebody gets on a PowerPoint slide that this guy was a terrorist bearing IEDs. And they were just doing that all over the place.

And he might, along the way find himself stripped--

Yes. Right. I mean, when I felt that people were being frank, and they were telling me why they joined the insurgency or why they gave money to whatever, they were telling me that it was because somebody had been killed in their family by the Americans, or somebody had been arrested and humiliated. …

The pictures [of Abu Ghraib] when you saw them, where were you and what was the feeling?

I was in Mosul at the time, and I think I really felt like, you know, it really was a few people who had just gotten out of control. My first impression was "bad apples." But I got back, and talked to more people and thought about this more, and it's not bad apples. Because as I said before, these MPs were taking their cues from interrogators and CIA agents who'd they'd seen sexually humiliate prisoners. And I think if they hadn't seen that, then this wouldn't have happened. And if there hadn't been controls over it, then it wouldn't have happened. So my view on it did change.

When you say "controls over it," what do you mean?

Well I mean leadership that says all the time, and reinforces all the time, "Your job as an MP is to protect and maintain the welfare of the prisoner. And any abuse that you do, or any humiliation that you do, will not be tolerated and it will be punished." And that's what you do in the military, you know? That's the kind of structure we have.

And as opposed to that, what conditions existed at Abu Ghraib?

Well apparently, no one felt like their job was the well being of the prisoner. They felt that their job was dehumanizing and breaking them down for interrogation purposes, and with the MPs, [for] God knows what, you know? So I don't know. …

I think the interrogators were using sexual humiliation and some harsh tactics. And the MPs felt like, "Well, we're in a culture now where this is OK." And that's really powerful. When you don't have anybody saying that's not OK, it becomes, "Well, I guess this is what we do in a prison, to prisoners." They chose, I think, prisoners at random or maybe prisoners that they just personally didn't like, and did these things to them. …

So add to that, or not, [Gen. Ricardo] Sanchez's rules which kind of come down in the fall that say dogs, and then environmental manipulation, all that stuff [can be used]. [Secretary of Defense Donald] Rumsfeld's rules, which come from Guantanamo, [allow] stress positions and lots of other things. Many of the Gitmo ideas that come with Gen. [Geoffrey D.] Miller and his crowd … it sounds like it's a system where as an individual interrogator, you could almost make up your own set of rules and feel pretty comfortable with the authorizations, long as you didn't cross some moral line that you drew.

That's certainly true. Even if you had a single document, a single IRE that some unit had given you, it was hard to make sense of that because there were contradictions within it. So in a way, you could really justify almost anything you wanted to do. So yeah, it made it pretty tough. So all you had to do was look around you and see, "Well, what seems to be acceptable?" And then you do that.

And what seems to be acceptable was a lot harsher than what the rules were, in a lot of ways?

Yes. Yeah.

How much harsher?

Well, it depends on what you're going to say the rules are. Because as I said, Geneva Conventions for prisoners of war don't allow us to really do anything to these prisoners other than talk to them. So all this other stuff we did with freezing them, starving them, sleep manipulation, isolation -- we're not allowed to do those things. …

[So it wasn't just a few bad apples doing things?]

No, not at all. I remember when we had that shipping container in Mosul. We were sort of close to the street, and of course with the loud music, the lights, the sometimes yelling, it would attract people and they wanted to participate in it. And it was very hard because sometimes it was in the middle of the night and I'd be the only person out there. So I was afraid to leave to go get help, to chase these guys off. But they might outrank me, there might be more of them than of me. …

I think it's systemic. And I say that because for instance, if you set up a prison like Abu Ghraib where you have maybe 10,000 Iraqi prisons there, and you have 18-year-old guards guarding them, you know that you're going to have abuse taking place. I mean, if you don't know that, you're an idiot. And that goes all the way up the chain of command. And so they did not create oversight. The Pentagon should have been on this and making sure that abuse wasn't happening.

And there are ways to be effective. I saw good, clean detention facilities and I saw detention facilities that were out of control. And it all came from the leadership. It wasn't because they got lucky and got good privates in there; that wasn't it. …

[Tell me about your feelings during your time in Iraq.]

Editor's Note: Lagouranis was given the task of searching Iraqi casualties for intelligence information. At one point, he says he was ordered to go through the pockets and personal effects of 500 dead Iraqis.

Well yeah, sleeping with 500 dead bodies and going through their pockets was -- I mean, it doesn't get much worse than that, you know? I mean, you really feel just a total sense of despair, and that you've crossed over into a realm where your friends and family are just never going to experience that, you know?

But I think that my experience of despair came in North Babel, when I had just all these prisoners that I knew were innocent, I was powerless to help them. And yet I was forced to interrogate them every day and listen to them cry, and tell me about their families. And I mean, that was just -- it was awful, and I think that's most of where my anger came from in the end, was that experience.

And how angry were you?

I was angry enough that I was being insubordinate to the Marine unit that we were working with. I was yelling at officers. And as I said, when I got back to the United States, it was hard for me to even participate in my unit. Like I just didn't believe in anything that we had done, and I was willing to say that to everyone. They ushered me out of the Army. …

Editor's Note: Lagouranis was given an honorable discharge from the Army.

Do you have any doubt that [interrogation techniques] migrated from Afghanistan to Guantanamo, to Abu Ghraib, to Iraq in general?

There were a lot of people and a lot of interrogators who had worked in all three places. And they were telling the less experienced interrogators about what interrogation is like, what you do, what's effective, what's not. And very little about what is not allowed.

Early on, it seemed like as long as you didn't seriously injure or kill a prisoner, you were within the guidelines. Because they were telling us all these stories about what happened at Camp Bagram in Afghanistan. And yet, they were there at the time when there were two deaths. And that was really all that was talked about as if these people had crossed the line.

Death crosses the line?

Death crosses the line, but you know, torture doesn't. …

And when you're in a room and a guy comes in, can you tell if bad things have happened to him, [if] he's been "softened up"?

Sure, sometimes it's really apparent. Sometimes they can't walk. Sometimes they're got bruises all over their faces, they have burns on them. Sure.

And have they been "softened up"?

Usually, yeah.

Has it worked?

Not that I saw. And that certainly wasn't an approach I would run. And you know, it might have worked on somebody who was guilty, but I so rarely saw guilty people; they were just picking up bummers. …

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posted oct. 18, 2005

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